Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) was born in Konigsberg, East Prussia. It is said of him that “his failures are more important than most men’s successes.” Kant has contributed his literary knowledge in different areas of human inquiry. These include science for example astronomy, biology and philosophy. Here we are concerned with his moral writings.
Kant argues against the skepticism of the eighteenth century, that scientific and moral laws can not be discovered. Failure in doing so results from the fault in procedure that is being followed i.e., using empirical data as the source of knowledge. Reason not empirical evidence can lead us in knowing both scientific and moral laws. He says, for the sake of explanation, that human mind works according to certain laws namely the “categories of understanding”. Causality, for example, is one of the categories that tell us that for every event there is a cause, helping in understanding the natural phenomenon. It is not the observation of sequence of cause and effect of natural phenomena , cause preceding the effect in the that help us understand these phenomena, but the ability of human mind that shapes or gives sequential order to the cause and effect principle in a given phenomena. Moreover, these categories of understanding are a priori. These come before our experience. In this way the source of all understanding and certainty of knowledge is human reason. Thus we are able to discover and infer the nature around us through our rationality and reasoning capacity.
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Now applying the same principle Kant tells us that certainty of knowing the moral law can be achieved through reason and rational nature because this alone is same and common in humans. Similarly, the source of this law is a priori; it comes before experience not after it. Rather it provides the basis for our understanding and appreciating our experience. Nevertheless, experience can not provide the ground for morality because it is different in everyone and is influenced by varieties of desires and tastes. That universal moral law is objective i.e. within our mind, which is universal to all human beings. Human conscience for example is universal. This law leads to the formation of ethical system that is universally both in scope and in content pertaining to humanity. Similar moral values would result from such a moral law which is valid for all human beings.
The moral actions should be consistent with their reason. These should be acceptable to each and every individual. These moral principles should be consistently binding upon all individual, because of there rational being. Such moral principle, says Kant is a test of consistency that a man can will that all men, including him, should act upon is called the categorical imperative. Thus right actions are those which are applicable to and consistent with acceptability of all other individuals. Wrong actions, however, are those which are not applicable to and consistent with acceptability of all other individuals. Categorical imperative not only helps us in distinguishing right from wrong actions but also binds us in doing right and avoiding wrong actions, because each rational man is obligated to follow reason. Categorical imperative enables us to establish our moral duties.
Constructing his moral philosophy in detail, Kant say that there are good and bad actions. But morality of such actions has no intrinsic value. These actions have no value when done out of good will. Good will is something which is without any qualification good. Talents of human mind intelligence, wit and judgment and gifts of fortune such as power, riches, honor, health and happiness must be qualified by a good will. Otherwise, these can be engaged in any negative sense to individual or society. Even so much so that there are some qualities namely moderation in affection and passions, self control and calm deliberation are of service to good will itself. These qualities may facilitate the performance of goodwill. Even these qualities can not be called a good without qualifying them with a good will. Because a calmness and self control of a notorious person proves to more dangerous than that of villain devoid of these attributes.
In addition, good will has moral value which is not liable to be influenced by the consequences it produces. For example if an individual has a good will but his efforts for telling the truth lead him into danger then his good will, assumedly, has lost its incorrectly so, value because of the bad consequence of his righteousness. Rather good will is good in itself, it is not good because it achieves good results or is bad because it results in bad consequences.
The aim of human reason is not attaining happiness but to engender a good will. Reason is the means to produce or cultivate the end which is good will. Happiness can not be the end of the reason because the more the reason is cultivated the more sophistication is acquired and the more burdened feels a man. Human instinct could aim at the end of happiness. But nature has chosen reason for rational human beings as a means to attain the end i.e, good will.
Kant then proceeds to discuss the relation between goodwill and duty. He says that a good will is one which is done for the sake of the duty. Actions done in this sense would have moral worth. He is talking about good actions not bad ones because these are not done for the sake of duty rather done against it. In explaining this concept of duty he gives such examples as a man who due to misfortunes in life is in distress has lost all charm in life. He is on the verge of collapsing decides to live and continue living; for the sake of duty of being alive is acting in accordance with his duty and only such action done out of duty qualified by good will have moral worth. In addition, Kant distinguishes the merely praise worthy behavior from moral action. All those actions having appreciative social value have no moral worth if done out of any personal inclination of gain what so ever. Moral worthy actions are those performed only for the sake of duty out of good will.
He then states his ethical propositions. Firstly, an action has moral worth when it is done out of duty. Secondly, an action done out of duty do not derive its moral worth from the consequences it engenders, well or worse, but because of following the principle of duty. Thirdly, in his own word, “duty is the necessity of acting from respect for the law.” Duty is known as any morally right action done in direct contrast to ones own inclination or of any external influences, out of good will objectively for the sake of the law and subjectively for pure respect of the law.
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Kant now expounds the idea of categorical imperative. Categorical imperative is test of any action. The action either is consistent with the universal law or is not consistent with it. For example, he states that is it prudent or is it right for a man to keep a false promise. Its answer may be difficult to given, but it can be provided by testing its maxims or statements in universal law or universal terms. For example is it prudent to make false promises this maxim if universally evaluated would not stand as becoming a universal law because false promises can not be universalized. On the other hand, the second maximum when tested in terms of the universal, is it right to keep false promises can not be universalized either. Hence through categorical imperative we are able to distinguish this action being right or wrong.
He then discusses the categorical from hypothetical imperative. An action done for the sake of duty out of good will is categorical. Hypothetical imperative is when and socially praise worth action done, not for the performance or doing duty but rather, for the sake of influence or what so ever consequence.
Through categorical imperative, he further explains that, it guides us that we should only do that action of which maxims are able to with stand the test of universality. In Kant words, “Act as if thy action were to become by thy will a Universal Law of Nature.” Kant defines that categorical imperative is two fold test, firstly that maxims for moral action be universalized without logical contradiction, and secondly, that they be universal directives for action which do not bring the will into disharmony with itself by requiring it to will one thing for itself and another thing for others. Kant in order to illustrate gives four examples. Firstly, there is person who is despaired of his life and thinks of committing suicide. Then he asks himself this question is it not contradictory to shorten one’s life out of self love, he then testing this maxim in the categorical form and universalizing it he finds it that nature has given him life to fulfill it and not to end it. This he finds can not be universalized. Secondly a person in dire need of money wishes to borrow money and not returning the sum again finds himself in dilemma find is it right to borrow money for self interest with no intention of returning the amount. He easily finds out universal law that his maxim stands in contrast to become a universal law, so he has not to do so.
Thirdly, another person who is naturally gifted with some arts lets his talent rust because of sensual indulgences or idleness. He then being a rational being ask himself that is right to devalue one’s natural gifts which he has been endowed with can this maxim with stand the universal law. This is easily not so because letting one’s talents die does not stand to categorical imperative. Fourthly, a person in good condition sees other people in neediness thinks that it is not my concern to help them. And he neither envies’s them or despises them and does not desire there despair. In such a situation for these it’s not the end of their life rather they would live and could get help. And for this person this maxim might with stand to categorical test but his will as rational being would not be at ease with his maxim of being indifferent to needy people because he can imagine that sometimes in life humans, including himself, need help of others so he can not let such a will to be universalized. Thus all of the four people discover there course of moral conduct by applying the categorical principle to there personal cases.
There after he stipulates the social implication of the universal principle of categorical imperative. The humans are rational beings. They are not object of any kind. There very nature demands them as being an end in them. So they shall never be treated as mere means rather ends in them. Human beings shall be respected impartially and avoid exploitation. Because the rational nature of man is an end in itself, thus by my point of view I am subjectively an end in my self. Whereas with respect to all other individual which is objective viewing rational human beings, they due to there very rational nature, are end in themselves. Kant thus defines this as practical imperative, “So act as to treat humanity, whether in thin own person or in that of any other, in every case as an end withal, never as means only.” Kant further states that regarding any of the maxims human beings should always be treated as an end not as means. In all the maxims the supreme condition must be that human being are an end then it be universalized.
Kant at last having put his moral philosophy argues that only an ethical system based on rational basis can best provide us a system which is not only consistent with human reason but also consistent with universal agreement. Moreover source and force of applicability with human nature i.e. its binding force comes from within. Whereas an ethical system based on empirical evidence of human history and his behavior can never be agreed upon and has no binding force.
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